I was officially published!

I’m very excited to announce that I had a piece published by the major personal fiance website, The Penny Hoarder.

You can read the article here —-> I Saved $10,000 to Travel in Just 7 Months. Here’s How

I wrote an article outlining my strategy for saving money to travel all these years. At this point, for me, the work/save, then travel schedule seems like second nature; but what I realized is that for other people the concept is totally foreign. Writing this piece was a great exercise in taking the familiar and trying to look at it with new eyes. Not only was it a a great learning experience, but it allowed me to look at what I’ve accomplished in the last five years.

So, I hope you’ll take a moment to read it and see the other side of what I’ve been doing when I’m NOT traveling.

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A week in Cambodia

Our backpacking travels started in Cambodia, and you immediately notice the difference crossing over that invisible line that delineates one country from the next. It’s hard to say specifically how, but all of a sudden looking out the van window the landscape changes from lush and plentiful to arid and sparsely vegetated. Life looked a little harder for people, not that everyone is unhappy—in we were always met with friendly smiles along the way—just that they seem a bit more worn down. I don’t mean to make Cambodia out to be this impoverished, sad place, because it’s far from it; it’s more like Cambodia’s difficult past is still evident in today’s life.

Our first of two stops was to Phnom Penh where we planned to go to the Killing Fields and the S21 Prison, which stand as museums and memorials to those who were killed under the Khmer Rouge regime. S21 was a school in the middle of the city where the Khmer Rouge took over and used as a torture prison to elicit fake confessions of treason to appease the paranoia of the regime, and the Killing Fields is where they took the prisoners after they confessed and were considered of no more importance. The regime first used fear to push people out of the cities, telling them the Americans were coming to drop bombs, which stopped the spread of any information, scared and unaware of what was happening in their own country. Then they targeted the scholars, artists, monks, and politicians, which by default left the farmers and villagers who didn’t have the education to think for themselves, quelling any resistance. To say it was a heavy day doesn’t really express how difficult it was to walk through the horrors of those years, but heavy as it is, it’s vital to understanding Cambodia today.

The rise of the Khmer Rouge was indirectly (although some would say directly) related to the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War. In fact, the United States dropped more bombs on Cambodia than in all of World War II combined. It seems to Ian and I that this level of destruction and fear that the Cambodians were facing made it easy for the Khmer Rouge to manipulate and ultimately take control, in the most horrific of ways, over the Cambodian people. I can’t help but see how history seems to quickly repeat itself; just over 30 years after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, we have started another war and created chaos in Iraq, leading to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent people in the process. I guess I can’t help but ask: should we really be that surprised that a group like ISIS has come to power?

Sitting next to us on the bus as we entered the country were a couple of monks who are students at university (where they teach in English, strangely enough) who started talking to us about the history and current politics of Cambodia. They told us about the struggle to reeducate the country, how people are too poor to continue their education, and those who do often choose to leave the country for a better education but then never come back. All this obviously stunts recovery and growth which is why Cambodia is having trouble joining its neighbors of Thailand and Vietnam in becoming a modern and prosperous country. They told us that many of the ministers in parliament were people who had barely finished primary school, never mind high school or college, and have no specialized knowledge of their appointed positions. And these are the people making decisions for the country. We later learned that around 65% of Cambodians are under 25 years old from a guide at S21, and it’s that age gap between people who are able to run for government positions and the young people getting higher educations, but that aren’t returning, that is creating the problem. It made for a really interesting introduction to Cambodia, and played into our view of the country for the rest of our trip.

With only a week to spend in Cambodia we moved on to Kampot for the remaining days. This relaxed colonial riverside town was a great place to use as a base for day trips to the surrounding countryside. We befriended Nick and Pete, a couple of Brits, and spent a day on motorbikes going to a small cave where a little boy followed us in and took the lead as the guide. He pointed out animal shapes in the rocks, saying things like, “Hello, elephant, head, ears, eyes, okay?!” And then directing us through a small pathway out of the cave and clapping his hands to get our attention if we were going the wrong way. He of course charged a small fee for his expert knowledge, which we were happy to pay.

We drove to the neighboring seaside town of Kep where we had some lunch at the local seafood market. As divers we cringed a bit at some of the seafood for sale, like baby sharks, sting rays and other beautiful fish we like to swim with instead of eat. But we did opt for some fresh caught and steamed crab. We chose a couple of vendors from the many on the pier, or I should say they chose us, and then watched as they pulled the crab traps from the ocean to show us the product. They then sent them off to be steamed and delivered in a plastic bag with a bit of chili sauce. It’s always great people watching at the local markets, all the vendors shouting their products and haggling prices, it’s mayhem and it’s great.

Ian and I drove the next day up through a national park which weaves its way up a mountain to a deserted town. It’s the oddest thing. There’s this town that’s abandoned and eerie, and would have been a cool attraction just for the weirdness of it. But then the Chinese came in and are trying to rebuild the area, starting with a massive casino and eastern European looking block style hotel rooms. It’s just a bizarre place, but it offers great views of the surrounding area.

The small town also presented a surprise small world encounter. One night, while standing on the street corner trying to decide which way to go, we looked into the bar on our right and saw someone waving at us. We did that kind of wave and smile where you pretend you know why the person is saying hi to you, but your face clearly reads, “I have no idea who you are.” Then they tried to give us a hint by mimicking scuba diving and we thought, “Aha! We met them on Koh Tao,” so we walked towards them. As we got closer though, we realized they weren’t from Tao, but instead a couple we had taken diving last year in Sri Lanka! It was such a shock to run into two people we had had no communication with in the past year, but here they were, in the same place, looking out at the street just as we walked by. Like I said, small world!

Kampot is one of those places where the chilled out vibes turns a two day stay into four or five or six. So to avoid getting too stuck we decided to move on, both because it was time and because the Cambodian food wasn’t anything too exciting and the Vietnamese food was just a bus ride away and calling our name. On to the next country!

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Small world encounters and new friends!

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Diving in the Philippines

After two months on Koh Tao, new certifications, and new friends, it was time to leave and travel to another island to visit other dive friends. Our timeline happen to coincide with Hillary and Rylan’s so we were able to meet back up in Bangkok before we all went our separate ways. They had been traveling Cambodia and Vietnam and were now headed home, which is always an interesting time. There’s bit of excitement at seeing family and friends and eating tastes of home (like crab rangoon, no joke Hillary’s number one food goal even she’d been surrounded by all this amazing Asian food, she just wanted cheap American Chinese food), but also sadness that the trip is over. There’s also the onset of exhaustion both with the emotion of leaving and the knowledge of how long the trek is to get home…an eight hour layover in the Beijing airport, yuck. Needless to say, it made Ian and me very happy that we’re not there yet, that we’re just hopping over to another cool place to continue the adventure.

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Night sleeper train to Bangkok

You might remember last year, by total coincidence, a guy I had met my first time on Tao (well, actually in Malaysia doing a visa run) but never kept in touch with put a message on Facebook saying he was living in Sri Lanka for a month working at a dive shop, which is how Ian and I eventually spent so much time in Unawatuna. We became very close with Martin and his girlfriend Charli; it was so crazy to reconnect with someone I had only met briefly so long ago, but to be welcomed wholeheartedly like we’ve been close friends all these years. But hey, that’s traveling! Anyways, it turned out that Sri Lanka wasn’t the best fit PLUS they were given the opportunity to open up their own dive shop in the Philippines. Fast forward a bit and voila, they’re living in El Nido on the island of Palawan in the Philippines and their dive shop had just (and by just, I mean days before we arrived) finished construction! This is now country number three Martin and I have met up in spanning four years. Very cool.

El Nido wasn’t what Ian and I expected. We thought it would be full of posh hotels with white awnings and well-manicured landscaping, beaches lined with sunbeds and umbrellas, and restaurants offering beachfront candle-lit tables. What we found was just about the exact opposite. El Nido is definitely a tourist destination, but it’s also very much a local town. There are a couple fancier looking hotels, but mainly it has guesthouses and homestays with modest rooms. And while some people did try to sit out on the main beach, it was lined with either local fishing boats or tour boats waiting to take people to the islands. The restaurants were in fact beachside, and thankfully even the fancier ones were laidback and chill the way you’d want it on a tropical island. It was a bit of a shock to have our idea of a place be so SO wrong, that it took us nearly a full day to get our vision to catch up to reality. When we did however, we couldn’t believe how lucky we were to be in such a beautiful place.

To get to El Nido you have to take a six-hour bus ride from the airport through tropical green rolling countryside dotted with flowering trees and plants that occasionally gives you peeks of blue ocean. Once you come up and over the final hill with El Nido town below you, you look out to the ocean to see massive limestone formations everywhere. At some points, so many so that it looks like one continuous mountain range off in the distance, instead of the many little islands or rocks. The islands themselves look like the quintessential deserted island ringed with a sandy beach, palm trees leaning out over the water, and ocean that goes from a clear turquoise color to deep blue. And while town can sometimes be a bit dusty and crowded and smelly, it’s not developed to an inch of its life, as so many beautiful beach towns are.

Part of the reason for this is that there seems to be a cap on what tourists can pay while visiting El Nido. This isn’t for lack of want, there are just very few ways to get money out in El Nido. As in, there’s one ATM that usually doesn’t work for foreign cards or doesn’t have money in it, or sketchy fake transactions at the local pawn shop or gas station that somehow allows you to receive cash. Martin and Charli said that because of this, New Year’s, which is meant to be a busy time, was dead, because no tourists could get any money, so they left. Maybe it’s because of this that the town has been able to slow its own development (not sure if they think that’s good or bad), and preserve its vibe as a local place not just a resort town. Depending on the local view El Nido may never be in danger of this, but we could both see it happening very easily. There are new resorts and buildings going up everywhere, and if they can find a way to give tourists the money they want to spend—and have reliable electricity, instead of the nightly electrical outages that left us wide awake and sweating—then maybe it will blow up. It was interesting to be in a place where we could tell that if we came back in 5, 10 or 20 years it would be a whole different world.  And while in five years it might have a few more of those conveniences that are nice (like ATMs and electricity), in 10 it could be ruined. We’ll see.

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Martin and Charli welcomed us in the most seamless way possible. They had secured a room for us, gave us a bike and a phone to use while we were there, and signed us all up for an island tour friends of theirs had organized for the next day. Island tours are how visitors can get to all those limestone formations off the coast of El Nido, taking a small boat for the day and going from one perfect beach to the next. But after stopping at the first island for a delicious barbeque they cooked on the boat, and drinking a couple beers and laying in the hammock, we were all too lazy and never made it to the next islands. Luckily we didn’t miss out on seeing the others as we dived off many of them in the following weeks. Friends of ours from Tao had been planning to visit El Nido to visit friends of theirs the same dates as us, so they came diving with us as well. It was really cool to continue connecting different worlds of people in new places. The diving was beautiful…well the first couple dives weren’t the best visibility, but the marine life blew us away even then, so that the next time we went diving in crystal clear vis it was truly stunning. El Nido was great for finding all the small little critters that hide in the coral or camouflage with the sand. We saw seahorses, flying gurnards, flabellina nudibranchs, an octopus, a fighting peacock mantis shrimp, jellyfish, frogfish, and of course all the beautiful reef fish and coral formations we had heard about.

While we went with the intention of helping Martin and Charli with customers at the dive center, we realized that it was probably still a bit early on in the opening process for them to really need us. Since Ian and I were just fun diving and not taking customers out, this gave us some freedom to try out a couple new aspects of diving. Under Martin’s direction, we were able to try side-mount diving. Normally when we dive the tank straps to our BCD (the jacket) on our back. With side-mount, you wear a kind of body harness that has a small bladder in the back, used for buoyancy, and the tank clips on to the sides, totally free of your back. This is great for wreck or cave divers as they can unclip part of the tank and swing it around in front of them, which allows them to squeeze through smaller spaces. Ian took to it immediately, loving the freedom of motion and lightness he felt. When I tried I was over weighted which made for a challenging dive, and since it didn’t really do much for me anyways, I had a go at underwater photography. Our underwater pictures and videos so far have been taken using our GoPro (thanks Wes and Joanne!) which has been so fun. However there’s no screen to see what you’re taking a photo of, and no ability to zoom or play with lens settings. So borrowing Martin and Charli’s underwater camera was a whole new experience and I loved it.

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Even though we were lucky and able to get some money out of the ATM (I seriously think it came down to having a small local bank card), we started to run low on money and realized it was better to leave after a couple weeks, instead of the full month we had intended on. Lucky we left too because I was starting my own hunger strike. The Filipino food, Ian had warned me, was not known for being particularly good. And while the boat barbeques were great when we were diving, and we found a great bakery to get some breakfast at, the rest of the food was kind of fatty and mushy and lacking seasoning. I accidentally got way too dehydrated one day and tried to eat some local food which just resulting in feeling sicker, so after that all food seemed to lose its appeal. I ended up on a mainly water and bread diet until we left, which was only four days later.

Regardless of the bad food, El Nido was beautiful; the people, the diving, the scenery, and we will be happy to go back and visit Martin and Charli in the years to come. But for now, we made our way back to Bangkok to do some laundry, EAT, and plan our next step. On to backpacking Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos!

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Koh Tao from Ian’s Perspective

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Phoenix Divers Family

 

It took 3 planes and a 3.5 hour ferry ride, totaling 31 hours of travel, to reach Tao (by the way, this is probably as quickly as you can there from Boston). Jet lagged and overtired as I got on the ferry from Samui, my mind was still struck at just how far I had come to see a place that means so much to Elizabeth. A place everyone in her life has heard about but very few had made the exhausting journey to visit. Sitting on the bow of that ferry, I felt as if I had traveled not only a great physical distance to get my Divemaster certification, which felt pretty secondary,  but also traveled so deeply into Elizabeth’s mind to learn more about this special place that has come to define and explain some of the most amazing parts of her. As Tao came into focus, so did the giant pink boat of Phoenix Divers; just like when I arrived at Burning Man Festival in 2012 my mind said to me, “Welcome Home”.

For two years now I had heard about all these faces on Tao; Claus, the lifer that has been there for 20 years; Neil, the Scott that did Elizabeth’s Open Water and is one of the better instructors you’ll come across; Nui, Elizabeth’s Thai friend that stayed with Elizabeth in the hospital after her accident; John, the former dive instructor gone internet poker player; Pooh (or Pooh Bear), the queen bee of the island that you can always turn to for everything; Ella, the Austrian Elizabeth stayed with in Bali; Jeremy, the nicest person you’ll meet; Fin, the Irish friend that I didn’t think I’d ever run into but happy I did. I’ll stop here for the sake of the reader but this list goes on and on; Pim, F, Xavi, Heather, Gail, Rory, Ay, Alex, Israel, Telek, Billy, Sarah, Michelle, Neus, Pee Ow, Simo. We walked from the pier to Phoenix Divers and Elizabeth was met with hugs as we walked along the ‘Yellow Brick Road’. In that moment I felt so lucky to be a part of this place with her and to be welcomed into the beautiful friends and memories she had created here.

What I realized quickly about Tao is that certain people and traditions remain constant all while new faces and dynamics are created. And it is those new people you meet that makes each experience on this paradise so unique. Shannon (Shaz), Luke, Mara, Carlito, Fabian, James, Lamai, Axel, Ping, Matt, Arvid, Julian, Casper, Manu, Kwan, Hugo, Cienna, and Carmen are some of the people, combined with the ones that have been here, that made this experience special for Elizabeth and me.

You quickly fall into the rhythm of the Tao life. Dive during the day, beers and hanging out in the evening. Everything circles around this, which makes life feel very simple. We work so hard in life for simplicity and, at its core, Tao is a simple life. Because of that simplicity I think so many people on Tao are able to really appreciate so much of life and feel in the moment, some for just a few weeks on their vacation and some for the years they’ve spent there. With the occasional BBQ hosted by John and Shaz or the cooking class taught by Lamai’s mother, it feels like Tao has just enough to keep everyone happy and always looking forward to something, whatever that might be.

I was eager to get my Divemaster training started and I wanted to prove quickly to those at Phoenix that I was someone that had put in the time and felt ready to take the next step with my diver education. I decided to choose Neil as my mentor during this process.

When you get to the instructor level, being a good diver is pretty secondary in that you simply cannot become an instructor unless you can handle yourself underwater. What makes you stand out as an instructor is how you interact with your students and how you instill the perfect balance of humility and direction to get them comfortable underwater and ultimately certified. Not taking anything away from the other instructors at Phoenix Divers, but Neil is hands down the best at this that I’ve ever seen. I think it comes down to the fact that he truly LOVES his life and job and he brings every bit of energy that he has to it. There is no part of Neil that is “going through the motions,” whether it’s with Open Water students or helping Arvid and Rory train for their Instructor Exam. He’ll spend hours in the pool perfecting a student’s skills then wake up at 7am for the morning dive with his 7-11 toasty and juice box and be ready to laugh and joke with his students. Whether diving becomes my career or not, I hope that whatever I do with my life, that I can be as enthusiastic and committed as Neil is to his profession.

As part of your Divemaster certification, you must assist on a handful of courses and it was so amazing to assist these instructors and pick up certain parts of their styles and teaching habits. I took an aspect of each instructor’s style that I now feel is my own. I came to Tao confident in my diving but after one and a half months assisting as many courses as I could, I realized after the face just how much further I had come. When Neil told me that I’m ready and that I should take my final exam, I understood what the Divemaster program is all about. It’s not about checking everything off the checklist, it’s about getting to a level of your diving where you know beyond a shadow of a doubt that you have the skills necessary to not only get certified but to do it, at least in your opinion, as good or better than the other Divemasters sitting alongside you.

After a 150 question final exam and the infamous Snorkel Test I was welcomed as a Divemaster with Phoenix Divers. It was a really proud moment for me as this is probably the only hobby I’ve ever had as an adult that I’ve been able to excel at and receiving a Divemaster certification in recognition of what I’ve put into this hobby really meant a lot to me.

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This my second trip in two years that focused on diving. When I think about what a career in diving could mean, it makes me a little anxious because I feel just as lost as ever about what to do with my life and where to live it. But what I do know is that when I’m diving, I’m the happiest I’ve ever been. I quickly received my PADI Pro Number, officially allowing me to take certified divers to fun dive. Days after, while taking two Swedish divers to one of the best dive sites on Tao, it was the first time I could picture happily doing this for the rest of my life. Life is as complicated as you want it to be and, as cliché as it sounds, you must pursue what makes you happy first and foremost and the rest falls into place. Something to think about once this trip is over I guess.

I feel so thankful Elizabeth has shown me this incredible place. This island represents a very core part of her mind and what she is and I’m thankful to feel at home here, literally and figuratively. I am also so thankful for all the people on Tao that welcomed me as if I had been there for years. You people are all amazing and I look forward to continuing to grow our friendships whether on Tao or at a distance.

Sometimes you have to travel great distances to tap the pulse of life or to see further into the life you may want to lead. While Tao will always be a place to visit for me and never my permanent residence, I will now always feel at home there and look forward to the journey of finding how to connect all the pieces I love so much about this island together in some new place with Elizabeth.

Check out our video of a day on Tao!

 

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Koh Tao, Round 3

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The most amazing day!

Oops, we’ve been a bit negligent.

It’s been one amazing thing after another for us and it feels like we’re just now settling enough to catch you all up. To begin with, we got engaged! A week before leaving for Asia, we took a quick trip down to St. Petersburg, Florida to visit with Ian’s dad and Joanne. Ian took me by surprise while walking on the beach at sunset and asked me to marry him. It turns out he had been sneaking around for months, working with a local jeweler to have a custom engagement ring made, and it couldn’t be more meaningful and fitting for the both of us. It was such a special day(s) filled with lots of smiling, tears, love and of course champagne. Thank you all for your well wishes and excitement; it’s been amazing to feel the outpouring of love and support!

Amidst all this excitement, we hopped on a plane to Thailand! After last year’s trip we recognized that we wanted to focus this trip on diving. Coupled with the fact that Ian felt ready to do the next level of his diving certification (becoming a Dive Master), and my wish to share with him the place that has meant so much to me over the last four years, we decided to come to Koh Tao.

It’s always so perfectly bizarre coming back to Tao. Everything is the same—coming into the pier, the main roads, restaurants, street carts, motor bikes, dive shops, taxi trucks, beaches, backpackers, resorts, etc. etc.—but things also feel very different. There’s more new development, a noticeable amount of older travelers and families vacationing here, and most of all, new faces and the absence of some of the familiar ones. However, that is where the beauty of Koh Tao, and Phoenix in particular come in to play. Phoenix is always one big family, and those who stick around feel it. Sure, it’s a business and people come, learn to dive and leave. But many also come and dive and later on come back down to share a beer at the end of the day. And then there are those, like myself, who loved diving and felt so welcomed and comfortable at the shop that they stay for another course, and then another and another. Not everyone feels that way about Phoenix though, so in that sense, those have made the decision to stay have gone through a certain vetting process and put Phoenix through their own vetting process. All of this to say, it is always easy to come back into the Phoenix family. There are new faces and names to learn, but there is never the feeling of “maybe I won’t fit in anymore.”

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So life begins again on the island. We had a little hiccup a couple weeks in due to a nasty stomach bug that was circling around, and our already sensitive, new-to-travel stomachs, but thankfully it’s been cleared up. Since then Ian has been busy assisting instructors on their courses (a main part of the Dive Master Training-DMT), completing various swimming and stress tests, and gaining experience being part of a large, (mostly) well-oiled dive shop.

As for me, I’ve picked up work here and there. It’s a refreshing change knowing that this is a stop in our trip and not an attempt to live here full time, because it eliminates the pressure to work every day. Last time when I had no plan for leaving, I felt like I had to take whatever work there was to make money and establish myself. This time, knowing we have an end date and other travel plans, I can enjoy a little more freedom and decide if and when I want to work, or when I want to go fun diving for myself. That said, this island is all about diving and not much else, so being able to have some work means I don’t go crazy sitting around twiddling my thumbs. This may seem like an unfair statement coming from someone on a tropical island to those of you back home battling snow and cold; but just sitting on the beach gets old after a while and I need more activity.

Check out our first attempt at an underwater video! It might be a little shaky, it’s a learning curve!

 

We also had the chance to do our Deep, Wreck, and (for Ian, since I already have mine) Nitrox specialties. Where we were already certified to dive to 30 meters, we are now able to go to 40 meters (130 feet). When divers are at these depths there is the possibility of nitrogen narcosis, which feels kind of like being drunk, but you’re under water which obviously poses different safety issues. The course is designed to test you at 40 meters to demonstrate how narcosis affects you and how to safely deal with it; especially as dive professional who might take customers to such depths and need to maintain their wits about them. We did this by going down to depth and playing a coordination game with numbers (kind of like a sobriety test) so everyone could see how their logic and reaction time were dulled. Ian and I both agreed we didn’t feel very “narc’d,” but maybe a little more relaxed in the sense that while we were supposed to be carefully monitoring our depth, the time we could stay there, our air, and our sense of direction, we suddenly didn’t feel overly concerned about any of it.

(Finally some decent photos of me underwater! Photo cred: Aaron Bull)

When it came to the wreck dives, we learned how to navigate through the inside of a wreck using reels to guide our way. Technical divers, or people going to much greater depths than we go, often use reels to help them find their way in the dark. The principal is the same in wreck diving. It’s easy for the silt to be kicked up and visibility lost when going through a wreck, which can cause disorientation that leads to accidents, so a line that has been reeled out acts as a guide to the outside. And Nitrox is a different blend of gasses from the air tanks we usually breathe. It has a higher percentage of oxygen which chiefly allows divers to stay at a depth for a longer amount of time. However, due to the extra percentage of oxygen in Nitrox, you also learn about oxygen toxicity, which is a greater factor than with normal air. All in all, it felt really good to continue to learn and explore new aspects of diving, especially as it’s been quite a while since I’ve done any kind of course.

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Exploring with Rylan and Hillary

Finally, we had a Portsmouth meets Koh Tao. This is where, despite all its pitfalls, I think Facebook is amazing when you’re traveling. Via Facebook we learned that someone Ian and I went to school with—actually, whose mother also taught Ian in the 4th and 5th grade–was traveling with her boyfriend in Australia and New Zealand, and making the jump over to Asia with the intention of coming to Koh Tao and learning to dive. We knew each other in school, but we all moved in different circles, and would never have guessed that in 10 years we would be spending a week together on an island in Thailand. But coming across Americans is a bit rarer in these parts, never mind one from your area, and definitely not one you know. For having just left home a month ago, it was surprisingly nice to see a face from Portsmouth at the pier.

Ian got to assist on their Open Water course and after they got certified we were all able to go out for some fun dives. During the course you’re trying to process all the information while remembering to do everything you’re supposed to be doing, all while totally out of your element. So the first fun dives afterwards are always pure enjoyment, because you’re no longer worrying about doing everything right, you’re just diving. It always feels that much more exciting every time I get to introduce someone in my life to diving. Diving, and the act of breathing underwater and swimming around with the fish is amazing in itself, but the fact that I’m able to be there to watch their faces go from “am I doing this right…” to “this is unbelievable!” makes the experience that much more special.

Both Ian and I have commented that the older we get the harder it is to make good friends. Friends you grow up with who have a similar history come easily when we’re younger; likewise with college friends who share new and pivotal experience that often create lasting bonds. But when we leave school and begin our own lives, and try to make friends who have been living their own life, it seems just a bit harder to get to the next level, that for so many years came easily. We feel so lucky to have met Hillary and Rylan as adults. They are moving parallel to our life of working and traveling, but very much living their own. However, our shared history with Hillary makes the friendship feel instantly older and well seeded.  Traveling has a way of cutting through the clutter of small-talk and getting right to people’s true personality. Shared experiences feel so much more vivid and strong, and even if they only last a day you can leave feeling truly connected to a person.  Spending a full week with Hillary and Rylan in such a beautiful place, both on land and under water, created an amazing friendship that we’ll be lucky enough to share either on this side of the world or on the other.

Like I said, it’s been a bit of a whirlwind, but we’re having a blast!

Here’s a video of us exploring southern part of Koh Tao. Again, it’s a bit shaky, so be warned and apologize in advance!

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The End in Unawatuna

...I think we'll wait for the next train

…I think we’ll wait for the next train

I can’t lie…after 10 days in the Maldives, transitioning back to anywhere is a challenge. Luckily Unawatuna welcomed us back with open arms and we quickly fell into our routine at the dive shop. As mentioned, Dilshan had only opened the shop seven months prior and was so busy right off the bat that he never had time to set up any real organization. With my experience working in a dive shop and Ian’s experience working in the marketing department of a major non-profit we focused our skills on organizing and promoting Sun Diving Center.

When we left Unawatuna the beach was beginning to show signs of slowing down for low season, but when we returned only 10 days later it was downright quiet. On top of which, it rained for the first two days making Ian and I question whether or not we had made the right decision coming back so close to monsoon season. But with the extra time we drafted up flyers and went into town to buy some shop supplies, like a whiteboard so we could start writing the dive schedule down.

As soon as the sun poked its head out Ian and I hit the beach with the new flyers. As horrible as it might sound, we knew that Dilshan wouldn’t be as successful at getting customers as two westerners. All over Asia there are people who walk the beach all day selling everything from fresh fruit, to beach blankets and cover-ups, to magnets and puppets. Some are relaxed, and when you say “no thank you” simply keep walking but others can be quite aggressive and end up guilt tripping you for 20 minutes before finally moving on. So, many travelers sunning themselves on the beach will adopt a sort of grimace/smile and a curt head shake as soon as they see a local start to walk their way. But when two westerners approach their guard is down and their more receptive. Don’t get me wrong, we got our fair share of brush offs, but we also got a lot of interested people.

Not a bad view from the office

Not a bad view from the office

Our first day we walked the beach for 20 minutes talking to people and handing out flyers and within half an hour of returning back to the shop we were flooded by customers signing up for dives. And of course, whenever someplace looks busy other get curious and come to inspect, so we got even more customers. It got to the point where we went from having no one scheduled to being worried we wouldn’t have enough staff to handle everyone. Dilshan and the boat drivers (who get paid per boat trip) were thrilled to be doing as many dives as they normally do during busy season. It felt really rewarding to have used our skills to directly see the impact of the results of our efforts.

Everyone’s good moods boosted the already fun environment of the dive shop. One of the biggest disappointments with the shop Ian first learned to dive with was the lack of community. We constantly felt like we were inconveniencing the employees and after the diving was done there was a, “pay your money and leave” attitude. We wanted to ensure that no one would walk away from Sun Diving feeling that way. We made it a point to have everyone hang out, whether before or after a dive we served tea and lunch and invited people to sit. And we always made an open invitation to customers to come sit and have a beer later in the evening.  As a result customers became friends with each other and with us, and despite the impending monsoon rains and sometimes less than desirable sea conditions, we were busy as ever.

A praying mantis outside our door, a sign of good luck...or good sea conditions?

A praying mantis outside our door, a sign of good luck…or good sea conditions?

Out of nowhere we had a week of absolutely perfect visibility, so Ian and I took advantage of the occasional afternoons free of customers to explore the dive sites we hadn’t seen before. It was one of the most special things to dive side by side with Ian, just the two of us and a dive site. Though it wasn’t always easy for him, Ian had worked hard to gain confidence and comfort under water, and those dives were some of the most enjoyable simply because I watched the worry vanish and the excitment for diving take over. I am very proud of the diver he has become and his enthusiasm to continue learning.

Two weeks later Martin and Charli came back from Thailand with all their belongings to start building up Sun Diving Center with Dilshan in earnest. We all see such great potential for the shop, not only because of Sri Lanka’s growing popularity and a need for good dive schools, but also because of Dilshan and his dreams for the shop. However there have been some roadblocks. It’s a family run business with his parents as the major partners, so as in any case with family and business, there’s a lot of back and forth. What will inevitably come of the conversations with his parents to grow the business is still up in the air, but we all hope the vision of a bigger, more successful, PADI certified dive shop will ease the bumps that occur during transitions. Ian and I want nothing more than to return to a thriving Sun Diving Center next winter and dive with our friends again.

For now though, it was time to make the trek back home to the US. Having originally planned to be in the north of India our last month of travel, we booked our return flight home from Delhi. Both of us were eager to get back to the city we started this journey in and see how we felt about it the second time around. Based on multiple recommendations we booked a couple nights at the Moustache Hostel in the southern part of the city. What a difference it made. Instead of dirty buildings crammed together and looming over us, and the hoards tuk-tuk drivers and street hawkers swarming around every time we left the hostel, there were wide roads, open spaces, and green trees! Aside from the occasional passing rickshaw everyone went about their business, unconcerned with the two of us walking down the street. Had it not been for the 110°F (45°C) heat we might have even gone out exploring. We opted instead for the cooler (temperature wise) common area of the hostel where we spent the days talking with other backpackers, many of whom still had weeks and months left in their travels, and feeling jealous that we were at the end. We also gorged ourselves on all the amazing Indian food we had missed. Mostly, what those days confirmed for both of us was that we had figured out how to feel comfortable, and truly enjoy India, and that we want to go back in the future. It was a nice feeling knowing that despite some of its trials and curveballs, India hadn’t defeated us. With that in mind we made the final leg of our trip; four hours to Dubai, two hours layover, and thirteen long hours to Boston.

The Sun Diving Family

The Sun Diving Family

Now we’re home. But coming home doesn’t mean, as so many have said, “back to reality,” it’s just means a different version of reality. While it’s pretty clear at this point that if we had the choice we would spend all day every day diving, we are still happy to be home spending time with family and friends and enjoying the New England summer. Of course, we’re also back to work, both at our old jobs. But it’s not so bad going back to work because we have a goal to work towards and an end date. After hearing everyone say this past winter was the worst yet with the cold and snow it confirmed our plans to skip out on it again next year. With that said, we look forward to seeing all of you this summer and fall! Of course if anyone is interested in making the flight over to Asia we’re always happy to catch up with you there as well. So we’ll sign off for now on the blog and resume our adventures next year!

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Magnificent Maldives!

­­­­You know when you buy a new computer or phone or some device where you can set a background photo; and you select that idyllic looking one of a dot of an island with a white sandy beach and palm trees sprouting out that sits in the middle of an ocean that darkens from crystal clear to aqua to a deep sapphire blue, and you think, “my god that looks like paradise.” Turns out those islands actually exist in the Indian Ocean, and we got to go there!

In heaven!

In heaven!

Everything about the Maldives is different. We arrived at the airport and instead of the normal queue of taxis and pick-up cars, we walked outside to the dohnis (smaller boats to the dive yachts) tied up at the “curb.” Instead of a satellite car park outside the airport, the dohnis shuttle people to a bay where dive yacht (or more commonly known as liveaboard) after dive yacht are moored up awaiting their customers. While Malé is only a bit over two square miles and has more than 100,000 people jammed into it, other islands are considered big when they have 2,000 people. And although it is easily one of the biggest sun and sea destinations, it’s conservatively Muslim, so bikinis and piña coladas on the beach are a no-no. Of course, most people are transferred directly from the airport to a resort on a private island or liveaboard where such rules don’t apply.

Nautilus Two: Our home for the week

Nautilus Two: Our home for the week

The Maldives are definitely a break from backpacking. For ten days Ian and I didn’t have to worry about where to find food, whether we could drink the water, haggling down accommodation prices or even setting an alarm to make the morning dive. And oh was it nice!

The liveaboard we selected (based on price, number of dive days and appearance) happened to be a German/Austrian run boat, so naturally it turned out we were the only non-German speakers. It also meant that every meal was accompanied by some kind of coleslaw and after diving beer was available on tap. While at first we felt a little isolated many of the other guests made the effort to come and chat with us; we soon found we had a small group of friends particularly Tobias and Martin, two friends from Germany, and Mandy and Ronan, a couple from Luxembourg. The six of us had a few nights of raucous card playing and lots of laughs.

Adding to our comfort and overall enjoyment of the trip was the main diveguide Peter, whose smiling face was ever-present above water as well as below. While the life of a diveguide in the DSCN5613AMaldives might sound like an easy way to live (and in many ways it is), it’s also means long days and constantly being “on” for customers. Peter works non-stop, always making our enjoyment his priority, only getting a few hours off in between dropping one group at the airport and picking up the next. A big man, whose six foot three frame towered over me, was the picture of tranquility and ease under water. Ian rightly commented that his skill is something to aspire to. On top of which his ability to make a boat of twenty divers feel welcome, and ensure individual attention to each person during a dive (if they chose to dive around him) was what took our trip from amazing to, I want to come back to dive with you.

And then there was the diving, the main attraction. Prior to arriving we heard people say that the Maldives were the first place where they saw almost as many fish from the surface as they did under water. Obviously we saw more fish under water, but we grasped their meaning; the visibility is so crystal clear that the entire dive site is visible before you even dive in. We knew we were in for a great week of diving when a white-tip reef shark went cruising past us no more than four minutes into our first dive.

Ian and I making our way through a small swim-through

Ian and I making our way through a small swim-through. Photo cred Martin Borgers

We started off doing wall (literally a wall of coral that usually starts relatively close to the surface and goes down and down and down) and pinnacle (a big rock) dives where the colors and sheer number of marine life was spectacular. Sometimes I struggle to describe what being underwater and surrounded by life is like; it’s so colorful and, well, different than what we know that it seems an overwhelming task to try and paint an accurate picture. The best I can do is to say it’s like watching over and being a visitor in a little city, with all the colors and vibrancy, the hustle and bustle, and everybody going about their business around you…or in some cases shooting you evil stares for disrupting their daily doings with your loud breathing and bubbles. At these sites it’s easy to stare at few square feet for the entire dive and come up feeling like you still didn’t see everything that spot had to offer.

The second half of the week was spent in search of the bigger guys. We spent two dives hanging out at a manta cleaning station watching these huge majestic creatures come swooping over and around us stopping only for a few moments to let the small cleaner fish remove the pesky parasites. While a truly beautiful site, Ian and I both felt that one dive of sitting and watching would have been enough, because after all, half the fun is being surprised when a manta ray just

Looking for whalesharks to snorkel with!

Looking for whalesharks to snorkel with!

happens to turn up. A couple of dives later, just as we were finishing the last bit of our ascent a manta came sailing past us and then, finding its food, somersaulted around a handful of times before departing into the blue. To us, that was just as, if not more exciting than going to and sitting and watching them.

Part of the reason I love diving is because it’s a totally different world, and we are just visiting, which is why you (usually) can’t guarantee a sighting of animals. When I worked as a divemaster, it was incredible how many times customers would ask why we didn’t see x, y, or z, to which I responded, “Well, because they’re animals, they move.” But that’s what makes it so special when you do see things. That doesn’t mean that you don’t hope for everything to cooperate. But unfortunately our last few dives were examples of the marine life “not showing up at the right time and place.” We transitioned from wall and pinnacle dives into channel dives, which tend to have strong currents that the big fish (sharks and rays and well, big fish) ride on. However the currents were unnaturally mild, so while we saw a ray or two and about the same number of sharks, it wasn’t the rush hour traffic we were hoping for.

One dive in particular stands out as the all time craziest experience yet. We had two amazing night dives, which is one of my favorite ways of diving as you see the real color of coral (not the diluted color that you see during the day due to depth and sunlight) and all the really alien-like animals. On one of the night dives we saw a beautiful octopus, pulsing and slithering its legs over the coral, morphing its color and texture to camouflage itself. But that’s not the night dive I’m talking about. I’m talking about a dive we did at a place called Alimatha Jetty where we went down only 25 feet and then just sat in the sand and watched as hundreds of nurse sharks swam around us. IT WAS THE COOLEST THING EVER! Though excited, we were all also a bit nervous, so instead of dropping down and going off in pairs or in fours, everyone swam as close together as possible, not caring if they were kicked by the person in front of them, just as long as they maintained their place on the inside of the group and not the perimeter. We watched mesmerized for 40 minutes, and then, just as a lull in the shark sightings occurred massive rays swooped in for their part of the show. Truly spectacular.  (I hope the video loads. Video credit goes to our friend Martin Borgers. That’s Ian and I front and center!)

Ian and I thought tried to think of ways to hide out somewhere on the boat so we wouldn’t have to leave, but finding nothing we joined the others going to the airport. Unlike our companions though we had another month of travel to look forward to, not home and work and a cold European spring. As it always goes when traveling, our plans had changed. We decided on our last day in Sri Lanka that we might forgo the north of India to come back and help our friend Dilshan get his dive shop running. His family opened the shop seven months prior and Dilshan had left his job one day and began working as a divemaster the next without much idea of how to organize and run a shop. Dilshan had become such a good friend, always happy to help us in whatever way he could, that we felt motivated to help him make his shop as successful as possible. It also meant we could continue diving every day. So we told the airline we wanted to pick up our bags during our layover in Sri Lanka and that we wouldn’t be continuing on to India, and made our way to our friends in Unawatuna at Sun Diving Center and our friends.

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Diving 101 – Written by Ian

Thoughts before my first dive:

Don’t hold your breath. Remember to equalize. Check your air. Deflate BCD, inflate a bit once you reach your depth. Don’t inflate too much or you’ll float up. Is my regulator working correctly? There’s an awful lot of current. Remember to kick, but not too much. Deep breaths and long exhales. Don’t use your arms to swim, you’ll look like an idiot. Shit I’m scared. No this will be fun. No it won’t. My ears won’t clear…oh wait yes they did. Am I doing it right? Am I doing it!? I suck at this.

Thoughts 20 dives later:

THIS IS ALL I WANT TO DO!

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Photo cred: Dan Smo

With a very expensive dive trip to the Maldives already booked, the first order of business when we arrived in Sri Lanka was to get me certified to dive. What I underestimated was that I not only needed to get certified (just about anyone can do that) but I also needed to become a good diver, which is much easier said than done. After some brief research we headed for Hikkaduwa to Poseidon Diving Center to get this process started.

When we arrived in Hikkaduwa, we were underwhelmed by the layout—one large busy road that runs parallel with the ocean but the ocean is blocked by hotel after hotel after hotel—and overwhelmed by how much more expensive food and lodging cost compared to the amazingly

Unawatuna, where the beach is just across a lazy road

Unawatuna, where the beach is just across a lazy road

cheap India (where we averaged roughly $12 per day in total spending). Despite the high prices, we ended up staying at the diving center, which offered us a discounted room during my course. Eager to get started, I began the Open Water course the following day.

I hate not being good at something and it became clear pretty quickly that this sport was not coming easily to me. I was ripping through my air way too quickly. I was kicking too much. I was scared underwater. I was, all in all, just not good at it. Even worse, the staff, and my instructor especially, did nothing to help me overcome these issues. I was left to my own devises to set up my equipment the first time, and when I did ask questions they were met with laughter and “just relax” advice. There was no sense of camaraderie; the usual beer together after a day of diving was instead Elizabeth and me sitting at one table while the staff kept to themselves at another.

It was a very difficult feeling for me because although I wasn’t good at diving, I was immediately addicted to it. There is truly nothing like it; take all the ‘meditative’ aspects of yoga and marry it with a real life psychedelic experience—that is diving! Scuba diving invites you, for a brief moment, to be a part of an entirely different and peaceful world that is filled with some of the most amazing colors, scenery and marine life you could imagine. From colorful corals that look like their painted with neon, to 100 year old ship wrecks that look ghostly, to lion fish that look like a made up fantasy, diving enhances all of your senses and can overwhelm you in the best of ways. Not being able to talk and only able to hear the sounds of my breath puts me into a trancelike state, similar to feelings I get when listening to electronic musicians at parties in NYC with close friends where we’re all aware that this moment is unique and beautiful and that there is no place better than that particular moment in time. In this underwater trance, stumbling upon something like the ridiculously cute pufferfish and seeing it mindlessly drifting around, is like seeing my best friend Wilder completely engrossed in the music at a party. And like those parties, it centers me and reminds me exactly where I am and how lucky I am to be there.

The one and only Martin

The one and only Martin

Elizabeth believed that part of my discomfort underwater was the lack of instruction and if I had someone that would take the time to truly teach me about diving I would inevitably get better. Being an incredibly small world, it turned out that 20 kilometers south, Elizabeth’s old friend from Thailand, Martin Goodwin, had come over to help run Sun Diving Center in Unawatuna. After completing my Open Water, we hopped the first bus to Unawatuna (a beautifully short trip) and headed straight to Sun Diving Center.

Martin, his girlfriend Charli, and the crew at Sun Diving Center encompasses everything great about the diving community. Elizabeth and I immediately felt like we had known everyone for years and found ourselves hanging around the dive shop all the time. Still feeling like I had a lot of improvements to make, I viewed each dive as a chance to progress and found myself enjoying them more and more once I began diving with guidance and confidence Martin instilled in me.

Syringing my ear

Syringing my ear

Diving is a huge adjustment for your body and new divers are often hit with nausea, fatigue after diving, and ear infections. As we descended down the anchor line for my 9th dive and final dive of the Advanced Open Water Course, I realized the slight pain I had ignored on the last dive was now a full blown ear infection. It was so brutally debilitating that the next day we went to a nearby hospital to get it looked at. After pumping my ear with syringe after syringe of saline solution to get some excess wax removed (I know…disgusting) they gave me some antibiotics and told me not to dive for the next week at least.

Because Elizabeth and I had been immediately sucked into Unawatuna and Sun Diving Center, we might never have left to explore the rest of the country had it not been for the ear infection. So while we weren’t exactly ready to leave we used the infection as an excuse to head to the hill country of Sri Lanka. And lucky we did as it turned out to be one of the highlights of our trip so far.

Elizabeth stocked with snacks, water and ginger beer for the long bus rides

Elizabeth stocked with snacks, water and ginger beer for the long bus rides

But when that week was over and I was okay to dive again, we headed straight back to Unawatuna.

Charli, Elizabeth and I went out for my first dive in a week and, not trying to sound too dramatic, everything rode on that dive. If my ear still hurt, no Maldives. If my ear still hurt, maybe there was a bigger problem than we anticipated and I wasn’t physically able to dive anymore. If my ear still hurt, maybe some of our plans to dive the world would have to change. But we dropped down and my ear immediately cleared. Even with the regulator in my mouth you could see the smile and relief on my face; it was a really great moment.

A few days later we all went out for a night dive. This dive was a break through moment. For the first time underwater I wasn’t worried about my ear, or my air consumption, or the way I was kicking, or anything else that could distract me from the pure enjoyment of the dive. I was just diving and loving every moment of it. I have truly never felt happier in my life as we rode the boat back to the dive center with a nearly full moon lighting the ocean with new friends and Elizabeth. It was one of those moments where you feel nostalgic for the present moment and you hang on to every detail knowing how perfect a scene it really is. I was hooked through and through. Over the next week and a half I watched myself getting more confident and enjoying the dives more as we continued to dive every day.

Break through night dive

Break through night dive

A few days later we said goodbye to Charli and Martin, who were heading back to Thailand with a farewell barbeque at Erenga’s, one of the divemasters, home. Sad to see them go, we knew we’d be seeing them sooner rather than later. With Martin and Charli gone, the last few days were an interesting transition; although, we had initially started out as customers, Elizabeth and I had become such a part of the dive shop that Sun Diving Center started to look to us for our input as if we were employees. Being a new dive school, there are loads of processes and systems they need to build in order to run more thoroughly and smoothly.

Chari and Martin's goodbye barbecue

Chari and Martin’s goodbye barbecue

Such a transition got our minds thinking. We started this backpacking trip with no plan and slowly pieced together a route we were happy with, but plans change and once again we’ve found that instead of planning it’s best to go with the flow. What I’m saying is that as eager as we were to see the north of India and continue our journey there, it will have to wait. We’ve decided to go back to Unawatuna and Sun Diving Center where we have the opportunity to help a new dive center, and more importantly our new friends, gain legitimacy and success.

All in all, the past month couldn’t have been more fun and exciting for Elizabeth and me and it says a lot that we are giving up a month on the foothills of the Himalayas in order to go back to it…after our trip to the Maldives, of course.

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Sri Lanka: the North and Hill Country

There are really just two blog posts that need to be done for Sri Lanka; one is about Ian learning to dive (YAY!) and the other is about our (brief) travels through the rest of the country. Since I want Ian to write about his first experiences underwater, I’ll tell you about the one week we spent away from diving and the beach. To be honest we might have never gotten past our second stop, in Unawatuna, if it hadn’t been for Ian getting an ear infection; so it was a bit of a blessing in disguise. Again, I’ll let him fill you in on all that.

Sigiriya Rock

Sigiriya Rock

After a bit of run-around, knowing it would be pointless to stay at the beach when Ian couldn’t go in the water, we made our way inland, up north to Sigiriya. There’s pretty much only one reason to go to Sigiriya, which is Sigiriya rock, a massive cylindrical formation that juts out of the flat land with a level top that has the (very few) remains of a royal palace. But mainly we went there because it just looked cool.

What was suppose to be a few hour journey north turned into an endless bus ride of stop and go due to construction on the only road leading to the town, which was shut down to just one lane. At one point we only moved six kilometers (sorry you’re going to have to do the conversion…or just trust that that’s NOT far at all) in one hour. It was so maddening that even the bus driver decided he’d had enough and completely ignored the poor traffic controller man trying to signal him to stop and let the other side through. While slightly nerve-rattling I can’t say that we weren’t ungrateful for his pushiness.

We got in so late the government buses were no longer running, so we paid an arm and a leg for a tuk-tuk, found an overpriced guesthouse, with a room full of frogs (no joke, there where five of them, which the husband of the couple running the place came in and scooped up with two plastic bags), ate some mediocre food, and called it a night.

Thankfully, the morning brought a fresh start. Sigiriya itself is spread out and sparse, spotted with guesthouses and roadside restaurants/convenient stores, temples and not one, but two big rocks. Sigiriya rock that’s shown in all the guidebooks and welcome posters at the airport costs 3,900 rupees to climb (Sri Lankans can go for free), that’s $30, or almost three nights stay, or a whole lot of food. But just next to it is another rock Pidruangala, not quite as uniquely shaped or covered with ruins, but high enough that it provides the same view as well as a view of Sigiriya rock itself, at the much more reasonable price of 500 rupees. And while busloads of tourists are constantly arriving to climb Sigiriya, we were only two of six people climbing Pidruangala.

We rented bicycles and wandered along the back roads until we found the modest temple that marked the entrance to the stairs/path of Pidruangala and made our way past a statue of a reclining Buddha, climbing on all fours up the last ledge, where we were rewarded with a beautiful view. We looked down on a sea of green trees spotted with small lakes, winding dirt roads, statues of Buddha and the occasional buildings. Back on ground level we sought out one of the lakes we had seen from above, and this time got a view of the Sigiriya and Pidruangala rocks side bys side. Feeling content that we had seen all Sigiriya had to offer we went home to our frogs and thoroughly enjoyed our drippy excuse of a shower.

View from the lake of Pidruangala (left) and Sigiriya Rock (right)

View from the lake of Pidruangala (left) and Sigiriya Rock (right)

From Sigiriya we made our way south and then east, finally, FINALLY figuring out that all the other tourists had been getting around by train instead of government bus, and after the timely and comfortable journey, understanding why. We were all headed towards Adam’s Peak, a major pilgrimage site for Sri Lankans Buddhists, and a must for travelers. Adam’s Peak is the fifth highest mountain in Sri Lanka, standing at about 2,200 meters, and said to be where Adam took his first step after being cast out of Eden, or where there is a footprint from Buddha, or some other important person/god depending on your religion. The town itself has a cluster of guesthouses three small restaurants and a ridiculous amount of tchotchke shops selling plastic Buddha statues, plastic flowers, plastic bouncy balls, plastic anything.

The guesthouses were all plain, since they’re really just a place for people to put their bags, take a shower and rest their head for a couple hours. And I do mean a couple of hours. Most people climb Adam’s Peak in time for sunrise, which means starting the trek between 2-3 a.m. depending on your fitness level. While Ian and I have been active in terms of walking and biking around, we’ve also done a fair amount of lazing on the beach; so, to be safe, we decided to start the climb on the earlier side. As I mentioned, this is a pilgrimage, so hiking up the mountain in the middle of the night is not actually dangerous or scary because the whole route up is well lit, lined with tea shops which stay open, and equipped with stairs, over 5,000 of them…of varying heights, depths and condition.

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Trying to stay warm in the “Last Tea Shop”

Feeling energized we powered up the mountain at an impressive pace, so fast that we had to stop for a couple teas so we weren’t forced to wait up at the top in the cold. When we made it to the “Last Tea Shop,” a hundred meters below the summit, we still had another hour before sunrise and the wind was whipping cold. I was bundled in sneakers, pants, and three layers on top, plus a scarf/hat thing and was still freezing, while Ian who had refused to listen to my warnings and was wearing shorts, a t-shirt (that he had to take off because it was dripping with sweat that was starting to freeze), a fleece, and a hat I had brought for myself but let him wear, was absolutely frozen. Sorry to call you out Ian, but in the immortal words of snotty kids and know-it-alls everywhere, I told you so.

A very happy Ian with some hot tea

A very happy Ian with some hot tea

Over the next hour people continued to cram in to the tiny shelter huddling with their friends for body heat. At some point we decided it would be better to move than to sit and listen to our teeth chattering so we hiked up 15 meters only to find that there was in fact another tea shop, more sheltered from the wind, and run by a monk who happily offered us tea and food without charge. We made the final climb just as an orange strip appeared on the horizon signaling the first signs of sunlight. We crowded in among the hundreds of Buddhists and tourists watching as the sun illuminated the lakes, hills and valleys that were hidden in the dark moments before. Fog rolled around the green hills below us as the sky turned blood orange replacing the dusky purple with pinks and oranges and yellows. Both Ian and I felt that making this climb was one of the highlights of our travels so far. For me it felt special to be part of something, what that something is I’m still a little unsure, but it felt like westerners and locals alike were silently encouraging each other on the way to the top so we might all partake in the spirituality, religious or otherwise, of the sunrise. For Ian it was a crucial “this is why I worked so hard and saved all my money” moment. In total awe of the natural beauty and the experience of climbing in the dark and then watching the sun reveal the landscape was an affirmation of why we were traveling.

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Beginning our hurried descent

Beginning our hurried descent

It was a beautiful sight…but beautiful or not, the need for a bathroom after all those teas to warm us up became a pressing matter. Ian and I started our way down the mountain stopping here or there to admire the incredible view that seemed to actually get better the farther we descended. Unlike normal hiking we couldn’t just go off the trail a bit and “pop a squat,” because for one thing there are hundreds of people around, and for the other, it seemed wrong to do at a pilgrimage site. So we all but ran down the steps, all the while knowing that if our bodies weren’t going to be sore enough already, they certainly would be now. Thankfully halfway down the mountain was a public bathroom, which meant we could take a slightly more relaxed pace the rest of the way down. With nothing else to do or see in the town, we showered, ate and caught the early bus down to the next town where we hopped a train to the beautiful hill town of Ella.

View from (almost) the bottom

View from (almost) the bottom

The train ride to Ella is said to be one of the most beautiful in the world, and as we whizzed through endless green hills of tiered tea plantations spotted with clusters of leaf pickers, big baskets hanging off the backs of their heads, we could see why. The comfortable climate (hot during the day and cool enough for pants at night) and peaceful atmosphere in Ella were perfect for a day of relaxation after the climb and travel the day before. Well, to be honest, we couldn’t do much else that day; our calves were so sore from all the steps that we could hardly walk. Seriously, the idea of leaving the room and walking down the small hill to the main road for food or water seemed daunting…and painful. Never mind walking back up again.

While Ella is known for some of its hiking trails, neither Ian nor I were too keen to do any serious trekking, sore muscles or not. That said we couldn’t skip it completely, and we had to get our bodies moving if they were to ever work again. And so a couple days after climbing Adam’s Peak, we walked up the gentle slope of Little Adam’s Peak. Unlike its larger cousin there were no stairs or tea shops, no Buddhists, just a wide dirt path that wound through tea plantations and up providing panoramic views of Ella Gap, the valley between the hills that part of the country is known for. Ironically, we had to hurry down once again, this time because of Ian’s need for the bathroom…if you know what I mean. Having accomplished a major (in our minds) feat, we enjoyed a relaxing afternoon reading on the terrace outside our room surrounded only by the sounds of birds.

But after three more days of relaxing in Ella, and Ian’s ear feeling better, we were ready to get back to the beach; and more importantly, back to diving. So we hopped a bus that, as usual, went as fast as possible down the hairpin curves of the mountain road and through two lane traffic, back to the lovely Unawatuna. We had a week and a half before leaving for the Maldives and were excited to just settle in; no more buses, no more trains, no more large hikes…just a whole lot of diving with friends and relaxing.

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South India: Part 2

We were actually looking forward to our sleeper bus (surprisingly comfortable beds for a bus) that would take us to Pondicherry, an old French colonial city south of Chennai. But as we stood at the bus station we learned that the bus had broken down somewhere and we would have to ride a semi-sleeper, aka reclining seats…I guess we were due to have a bus break down, as we’ve heard so many do.

Buses, buses and more buses

Buses, buses and more buses

Nearly 11 hours later on one of the more uncomfortable bus rides so far we arrived in the touristy and overpriced Pondicherry. For such a small city, we were surprised how little our tuk-tuk driver knew about where certain guesthouses were (usually a specialty of theirs) and ended up driving around with him for over an hour only to finally insist he let us out since it became clear he was just driving us around in circles. Resigned, we wound up right back at the first guesthouse we looked at costing us roughly triple the average price for a nights stay anywhere else in India.

We learned very quickly that this city, while quaint and beautiful, with resemblance to a small European city (offering more churches than temples as the tourist destinations), was not exactly the right place for us. The idea of a little Europe in a county that is so very much the opposite had its charm, there is no doubt about that; however, we knew that spending any significant amount of time here would simply break the bank, so we decided to spend just one day and night. We had heard that the only place to get a steak in India was Pondicherry so, having spent so much on our room already, we decided to take a break from backpacking and do a very “when in Rome” kind of thing and splurge on a steak dinner. Having not really eaten meat in two months, every bite felt even better than the last and the meal ended up being worth every penny.

Did I mention we spend a lot of time on buses?

Did I mention we spend a lot of time on buses?

The next morning we hopped a one hour bus north to Mamallapuram. Mamallapuram is a beach town that rests on the eastern coast of India with miles of coastline; however, this is not the kind of beach you are used to seeing. This beach was littered with trash, human waste, fishing boats and all the smells and leftovers that go along with that, and feels more like a junkyard than a place you would spend the day relaxing, swimming or surfing. It’s the sad reality of some places we see while traveling; that for many developing countries the lack of education and foresight to conserve their natural resources results in a depressed local economy where neither foreign nor local tourists wish to visit.

People instead go to the shore temple and the many temples in the center of town that, while now preserved, lay in different states of ruin. What looks like just a small park with a large boulder turns into a huge area of winding paths leading from one temple to the next. Many of the temples and sculptures are dug out of the rock itself and decorated with hundreds of intricate (if a little weather worn) carvings of gods and creatures. We spent a couple hours wandering around the site among the herded school groups and Indian tourists, while the locals took advantage of the many shady areas to have a picnic lunch and mid-afternoon nap. While the easy going days in Mamallopuram might provide a nice change from the hustle and bustle of the bigger cities, it was almost too sleepy, and after generally trying to avoid cities after our Delhi experience, we were ready to give them another try.

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That sleepiness however lent itself to a real small town feel, where if you walk around just twice you’ll already be treated as a regular from the restaurant and shop owners. The owner of the café across the street took a liking to us the day we arrived in town seeing Ian walking around in his New Hampshire “Live Free or Die” t-shirt, and over the next three days would call out, “Where’s that shirt? I love that shirt!” every time he saw us. As we left the guesthouse to catch the bus to Chennai Ian walked across the street and gave him the shirt; the look of surprise, thankfulness, and excitement on the owner’s face made our day. He showed it off to the people in the café turning to a couple of them saying, “This was the shirt I was telling you about!” It felt nice knowing that just as we would go home and retell this story and remember the experience fondly, he too will think of us when he wears the shirt, and for once we had made a lasting impression on his, the local’s, memories.

Ian and I were both eager to try out a big city again, to see if our culture shock had fully worn off and our experiences had prepped us for the mayhem. We ticked off the tests as we went. Test one: we got off the bus and navigated the bus station, found a tuk-tuk driver and got him to use the meter instead of an asking price. Plus we were rewarded with some of the most impressive city driving we have seen yet, as our young driver bopped along to the music in his headphones while weaving through insanely narrow spaces. Check! Test two: we successfully got a room at the guesthouse we wanted for a price we wanted. Check! Test three: we steered through city foot and auto traffic to find a local thali restaurant, and did as the locals do and ate with our hands. Check! Needless to say, we felt proud of how comfortable we’ve become in such an intense and chaotic culture.

Our guesthouse was a beautiful haven in the middle of the city. A building from the 1940s, its whitewashed and minimalistic rooms with large French doors faced inward, opening onto green courtyards. The trees shading the three stories of rooms muffled the horns and vendor calls from the street, replacing them with birdcalls and the drone of call to prayer from the mosque behind the guesthouse. It also turned out to be a great place to meet other backpackers. Every night

Relaxing in our room

Relaxing in our room

guests would gather in the main courtyard, around one small couch, to share a beer or travel stories and advice. We met a number of travelers, Paul an English/Swede on three weeks vacation; Dan, an Aussie traveling for a year; Peter, a 60ish year old German/Aussie who’s been backpacking all over the world for the last 10 years straight, and an old hippie who’s come to the ashrams in India for 20 years. It led to great conversation and a real sense of camaraderie in how traveling and seeing the world from unique perspectives allows us to achieve happiness and fulfillment. I also gained an admirer, Raja, the fatherly figure at the front desk with small features save his rather round belly, who confided in me his love for snacks after I shared a bit of sweets with him from the corner shop. I mean, he was dedicated to his sweets. As most front desk managers do in the guesthouses here, Raja slept in the office on a pull out bed, and had just turned the light off to go to sleep when he heard the ringing of a bell and jumped up running outside yelling “Ice! Ice!” He came back moments later with two sticks of chai flavored ice cream, one of which he gave to me, adding ice cream to the growing list of snacks he loved. It seemed to become his personal mission to feed me from his bag of snacks he kept under the desk any time he saw me.

Neither Ian nor I would have been ready to leave India if we didn’t know we would be coming back in just over a month. That said we were both ready for a small vacation from it. So we packed our bags and got ourselves ready for a month in Sri Lanka and a week in the Maldives, happy that we weren’t saying goodbye to India, just see you in a bit.

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